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CHICAGO — Steve and Sheila Conner say when their son, Stone, expressed his extreme dislike for middle school, they knew they had to take action and began asking him about his interests.  

Turns out the Connors’ son had an interest in cars, robots and anything speed-driven. 

“So we created a program around him that we would investigate ourselves,” Steve Connor said.  

By visiting car museums and other real world experiences, the Conners were able to capture their son’s attention. But it also left the pair with a desire to help other students. 

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In 2014, the duo founded the Heph Foundation, short for the Greek god Hephaestus, it is a standards-aligned program that teaches science technology engineering and math, also known as STEM, by using technology and other project-based learning students learn by doing. 

Twelve-year-old Maxwell built a remote control vehicle from scratch.   

“It’s basically like a car but it has a claw that moves up and down,” Maxwell said.  

Proud of his work, Maxwell says the project didn’t feel like learning and it boosted his confidence.

“It’s like the sky is the limit,” he said.

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The Conners say technology, such as an interactive video game, can make learning fun and interesting.      

The program, called Dream Teams, was first introduced to students at Oak Park River Forest High School. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the innovative pair made a smooth transition to at-home learning. 

Carrie Summy is with the Oak Park River Forest Community Foundation.  

“So, they drop off a gift, the kid leaves the zoom goes opens the door there is a building robots and all this fun stuff interacting with their classmates on line,” Summy said.

In 2022, the Oak Park River Forest Foundation awarded the Conners a $1.2 million grant for their work. The foundation’s president and CEO Tony Martinez said although the donors are anonymous, it is important that the Conners are allowed to build on the contributions they have made to students and the community.  

“They’re really the type of folks who do the grind and the hard work,” Martinez said. “Their enthusiasm, their energy, and they’re not going to stop, to be honest with you.   

The Connors say the best part is the reaction they receive from the children. 

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The couple said they will use the grant money to expand the program and have a goal to reach 10 million students nationwide.